The Walking Dead fans have known her as badass Michonne since she joined the AMC show’s third season in 2012, but Danai Gurira was an important, emerging playwright even prior to her television stardom. Although born in the U.S. to parents from then-Rhodesia, Gurira returned to the new nation of Zimbabwe at a young age.
And it is Africa—the voice of African women specifically—that fuels her plays. Eclipsed, her best-known creation to date, about Liberian women during the war there—is currently on Broadway and has generated lots of attention, largely because of Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o’s role in the bold work. The Root caught up with Gurira to talk Eclipsed, Lupita, creating opportunities for other African actresses, playing Afeni Shakur in the Tupac biopic, what attracted her to Michonne and her off-Broadway play, Familiar.
The Root: When did you develop Eclipsed and why?
Danai Gurira: I started writing Eclipsed in, like, 2008. All my plays are about women on the [African] continent or women from the continent. So this was a subject that [matched] my artistic mandate, which is about giving voice to African women through my work. … I was in grad school, and [there] was an article in the New York Times about women who were rebel fighters during the Liberian War … and I had just never seen an image of African women that looked like that. … little cute jeans and pumps and really cute hairdos, but AK-47s on their backs; very formidable women of war.
I had grown up in southern Africa, but I had never seen anything like that because I was not anywhere near western Africa, where this was happening. I was very much about celebrating the specificity of the continent, so I wanted to learn more about those African women, which led me to go to Liberia, do a lot of research and meet women, learn a lot, and create the narrative that ended up being Eclipsed.
TR: How did Lupita get involved?
DG: Lupita was an understudy of a production we did in 2009 at Yale Repertory. She was a graduate student stepping into the program, and they assign graduate students to understudy the major productions going on in their Repertory Theatre, the Yale Repertory Theatre. So she understudied it and fell in love with the play and we became buddies, all of us: Liesl [Tommy] was also directing that production, Zainab [Jah] was in that production, Pascale [Armand] was in that production, Adepero [Oduye] was also in that production; we all became friends.
I used her in a lot of things, workshops and things like that, but she was always in school those three years, so I couldn’t actually put her in a production, but I’d always planned to. And then, when she finished school, all these amazing things happened, but she circled back. She kept on saying, “I need to get back onstage; I really want to do Eclipsed,” and so one day she emailed me and the process started.
TR: What came first for you: acting or playwriting?
DG: Well, I’ve always been kind of doing the things in tandem because, as I started to create, to get into the arts when I was even in my teens, it was largely about creating [characters] and performing, and then that just became something that I really felt the need to do once I got … in college and couldn’t find any stories that related to what I wanted to talk about. I loved the stories I was finding; I loved Chekhov and I loved Shaw, but I was trying to find things that actually related to contemporary Africa.
I couldn’t find anything on African women, so I actually started to create as a result of not being able to find stories that spoke to that part of me. … I wanted to create pieces that allowed other girls and women coming up behind me to be able to pick up a piece of work and audition with it or use it in whatever capacity, and know that they had something that they could work with from that area, something that existed, some dramatic literature that existed. So, for me, those two things were always in tandem. But then this play was actually my second play, and the first play where I just stepped away from actually performing it.
TR: So how is it to create something you’re not in? Is it more gratifying?
DG: I love that. I love seeing these five women get up there and tell this story. I love the idea that I can be on the other side of the world and that’s happening. I don’t have to be there. It’s a beautiful thing. I love the fact that a big part of my artistic mandate is to create works for women of African descent so they can get up there and shine—that they can have lead roles; have complex, intricate roles that they can really sink their teeth into and show their craft.
I find it actually deeply gratifying to not be in the play I created and see it come to its actualization in the hands of others, ultimately, and I can be anywhere else and it can still be happening. That, to me … is very exciting and gratifying. And I can also, of course, see these women shine in a role that I created. And that, of course, is what I am always trying to do: is help create opportunities for women of African descent to shine in this industry.
TR: You play Afeni Shakur in the upcoming Tupac biopic All Eyez on Me.
DG: Well, she’s an amazing woman. She’s very complex: her journey as a Black Panther, how she got to that point, how she raised Tupac, really infusing him with a lot of culture, literature, art; having him go to the Baltimore School [for the] Arts—really all about wanting him to have an agile mind and wanting him to have an informed mind, wanting him to learn how to think for himself and not become a conventional member of society, but one who questions society. I found that really amazing about her.
She’s also someone who’s gone through various struggles that she’s very open about, and I find that very courageous in her. I find her very brave. I find it very amazing how Tupac described her as his hero. I think embodying her was beautiful, complex, and intricate and daunting. You don’t come across a woman like that every day, so you delve in as deeply as you can to [do] her justice.
TR: What attracted you to Michonne?
DG: There were parallels between her story and what I was creating with Eclipsed. Of course Eclipsed had already been created when I came across [The Walking Dead]; Eclipsed was written in 2009 and I came across the show in 2012. But what I found fascinating is that the women I came across in Liberia in the story and Michonne were very much women who had decided to become their own weapons in basically a war zone, and to make themselves their own best allies and transform in accordance with the brutality of the war and the world they were now in. And I think both The Walking Dead and Eclipsed ironically ask the same question: Who would you be if the world got this dire?
TR: You have another play, too. Tell us about it.
DG: Familiar is off-Broadway. It’s three blocks away from Eclipsed and it’s running at the same time. It is about a family in Minnesota that has Zimbabwean [roots] whose daughter is getting married that weekend to a Minnesotan man, and the daughter and her fiance have decided to conduct or participate in their Zimbabwean Shona ritual around the marriage process. … From there, some rifts in the household result in some issues amongst the family and the auntie who comes in from Africa, and cause a little bit of conundrum in the household. It definitely does have some very familial themes—of pain, secrets, wounds, all that stuff—but it’s also much lighter. It’s got a lot of humor in it.
Catch Eclipsed at the John Golden Theatre on Broadway until June 19 and Familiar at Playwrights Horizons at the Mainstage Theater, also in New York City, until April 10. The season 6 finale of The Walking Dead airs April 3.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.